I'm fairly certain I saw this film in its original theatrical release in the '80s(memory is dim,) and recently found it on DVD with considerable difficulty. The transfer to DVD is rather basic - no letterbox, a bit dark and very little in the way of special features - but despite disgust at the fact that the film hasn't been digitally remastered and given more than a bargain-basement DVD presentation, I love the film itself every bit as much as I did the first time I saw it.
Philosophically, i.e. in terms of ethical theme, "A Taxing Woman" is one of those stories in which identifying a hero is difficult - no clear black and white, only greys. Ryoko (Miyamoto Nobuko) and Gondo (Yamazaki Tsutomu) are of course the dueling protagonists, but each is anti-heroic, something I ordinarily can't stand: Gondo is the operator of a chain of Japan's ubiquitous "Love Hotels," where lovers go to find short-term lodgings for their trysts, who's got a complex system in place to evade Japan's horrific taxation; Ryoko is a tax auditor, later promoted to investigator, who, though admirable in her relentless dedication and competence, is party to some of the most horrendous legal assaults on businesspeople imaginable. The film's moral doesn't crystallize until the final scene - Gondo states a defense of his right to pursue his own happiness via an oblique reference to kids happily playing in a park below, then makes a dramatic and symbolic statement about the root meaning of outrageous taxation by slicing his finger and revealing to Ryoko his long-sought hidden bank account - via an account number scrawled in his very blood. After he walks away the camera lingers on the back of Ryoko's head, signifying her sudden crisis of conscience over her chosen profession.
In terms of style alone "A Taxing Woman" is an absolute masterpiece. The mood throughout is of a delightful farce in the mold of one of Blake Edwards' "Pink Panther" films, albeit far more subtle, obviously. The music, contrary to some claims here, is truly unique, memorable and nothing short of outstanding, much like Mancini's - fleshing out the farcical cat-and-mouse mood perfectly via two brief, repeating oboe (clarinet?) melodies laid over a bouncy 5/4 time signature that reappear at key points throughout the story.
The outrageous lengths to which the tax auditors and inspectors go to ferret out tax evaders is exaggerated (one would hope - I've never lived in Japan,) for great comedic effect. This isn't a rolling-in-the-aisles slapstick comedy and isn't intended as one, but the bureaucrats' combination of ruthlessness and obsessive yet oddly endearing personal dedication to their task, balanced by the businesspeople's often intricate and similarly humorous schemes to hang onto their property in the onslaught, is the exaggerated core conflict that pulls you into the plot and makes the film irresistibly charming.
The fairly simple plot setup in "A Taxing Woman" derives its incredible depth by the fact that it's almost entirely character-driven - Miyamoto and Yamazaki are such vivid personalities and the opposing chemistry between them so potent that you will find yourself thinking about them for weeks after the fact, as though they were your close personal friends. That is my psychological litmus test for a great film: "Do the characters stay with me long after I've seen it?" "A Taxing Woman" succeeds in spades.
A dose of gritty realism - though with a patina of humor as well - is added to the mix in the character of the violent Yakuza boss Ninagawa, played by Ashida Shinsuke. That element is underscored in the real world by the fact that director Itami was attacked on the street and had his face slashed by five Yakuza in 1992 after the release of his film "Minbo no Onna," a.k.a. "Minbo - or the Gentle Art of Japanese Extortion." He was subsequently killed when he "fell" from a hotel balcony, an apparent but suspicious suicide that was treated by the police as a possible homicide. The world lost a great artist, and "A Taxing Woman" remains a timeless masterpiece. We can only hope that whoever owns the rights to it will finally give it the digital translation and wide release it deserves.